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BOUNTIFUL - Barefoot and grimy after a morning of yard work, Kim Burningham seems anything but the dictatorial nemesis of the school voucher movement.
"We are best served by schools that throw children together," says the chairman of the Utah Board of Education, musing on the philosophical roots of his opposition to the state giving parents money to support private education.
"One of our greatest faults as a society is that we have become fragmented. Separation is not to be encouraged," he says.
Despite Burningham's thoughtful sentiments and his Grandpa Walton appearance, he is vilified in the pro-voucher community. They say Burningham and his allies are dedicated to depriving parents of their right to make educational choices for their children.
The 72-year-old former educator and lawmaker is anything but democratic, they say, claiming he would reserve school choice only for the wealthy.
"He's full of crap," says Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, of Burningham's fears of separation. "He's naive if he believes that. Vouchers will undo a lot of the segregation that already exists in the public schools. When you are free to go to any school you want, that will eliminate any segregation."
Besides, public education is already segregated economically to a large extent, voucher supporters argue. Wealthy districts and neighborhoods tend to have better public schools and teachers. As it stands now, few beyond the wealthy can send their kids to the best private schools.
Vouchers, even if only in the modest amounts approved by the Legislature earlier this year, would help middle-class and poor families fund desperately needed options for their children.
"Segregation is one of the big myths about vouchers," says Parents for Choice Director Elisa Clements. "If you walk into most private schools, you will see a broad mix of ethnic and economic and religious diversity."
Vouchers would supplement scholarships and other forms of financial aid, much as federal dollars help students attending private colleges, she says.
But implementation of the voucher program has been delayed, due, in no small part, to the efforts of Burningham. The state board ignored the advice of Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and refused to implement the program until it is approved in a Nov. 6 referendum. The board's defiance enraged voucher supporters like Dougall who accuse Burningham and his colleagues of arrogance.
"It's a travesty of the rule of law," he says.
The Utah Supreme Court in June unanimously agreed with the board's opinion that the referendum will decide if the voucher program stands.
The court ruling does not vindicate Burningham, Dougall says. "The rule of law says you comply with the law as you understand it."
Burningham sees the parent choice rhetoric as a smokescreen to hide the real purpose of vouchers - to fund schools that teach one religion, philosophy or point of view while evading even rudimentary oversight.
"If it would pay the entire amount to go to a private school, then maybe vouchers would help the poor," he says. "They'd like their voucher program to sound like it will help the poor afford private education, but it really won't."
Teacher and lawmaker
Burningham's roots in the public education system run deep. He taught speech, theater and debate for 27 years at Bountiful High School. Like any gifted teacher, he touched his students' lives.
"He was one of those teachers with a capital T," says Alan Smith, a Salt Lake lawyer and 1968 Bountiful graduate. "He knew all of our names on the first day of class. You felt important and that he cared about you as an individual."
Burningham changed the course of his life, Smith says. "Kim was responsible for my going to law school. He made you want to make a difference in the world."
Another former student is Bryan Bowles, superintendent of the Davis County School District, who says Burningham applied his compassion and knack for innovation and preparation from teaching to his roles as legislator and school board member.
"He does his homework. He thinks carefully. He does not make quick, emotional decisions," Bowles says. "Never would I characterize him as doing anything in a way that was anything but caring for students."
State board member Teresa Theurer, attending a board "social" hosted at Burningham's home last week, says the chairman seeks harmony on the board, but is anything but dictatorial.
"Everyone feels free to disagree, and that you can speak your mind," she says, adding that while a majority of the 15-member board opposes vouchers, pro-voucher voices make their arguments.
Burningham stepped away from teaching when the Legislature passed a cost-saving early retirement package in the 1980s. A House member and an educator, Burningham argued against it, saying it would lead to an exit of the state's most experienced teachers, including himself. And, indeed, he took the offer.
"I loved my time as a teacher, but I don't regret leaving," Burningham says. "You need to do different things in your life."
Burningham teaches writing to business executives and has served in a variety of public roles, including a controversial stint in 1996 as executive director of the Utah Statehood Centennial Commission, charged with organizing the statewide celebration. He left that position after a clash with other project leaders. He declines to discuss the incident, saying only, "I didn't like some of things that were going on. I said so and I was asked to leave."
Fears of retribution
Burningham fears the level of anger vented toward him and the state board for daring to question vouchers is rooted in a more disturbing trend: "It's a manifestation that some people don't like public schools."
"It's a small but vocal group," says board member Teresa Theurer, who says she can't support vouchers until the state adequately funds public education.
If the choice of words is any indication, they may have a point. Voucher supporters, including many lawmakers, favor words that carry strong emotions in conservative Utah - such as "government schools," "unions" and "education bureaucracy" - when criticizing public schools and the board.
But many supporters, including the bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, say they want vouchers because they are the best medicine for a public education system that is fast failing.
The argument goes: Public school bureaucracy, heavily influenced by the teachers' unions, has grown and calcified into an archaic, ineffectual monolith that is deaf to parents.
"I wish that Kim Burningham and other union advocates had more faith in their product," says Urquhart. "Public education is doing a wonderful job, but it's a huge system. It's going to have a few things fall through the cracks. If a wealthy kid is falling through the cracks, his parents can save him. I want the same thing for poor parents."
Voucher supporters counter with their own philosophical underpinnings: Any bureaucracy - even one supposedly dedicated to children - is committed to perpetuating its own existence, fighting change and reform.
Finally, they argue, parents best know their children's educational needs, not bureaucrats.
Burningham is simply another arrogant bureaucrat, they charge, even if he is more eloquent than average. His pleas to avoid politically exploiting the issue to the detriment of the state's children are just so much slick posturing.
"He's a politician, just like the rest of us," says Urquhart. "Kim's thing is about control. He'll throw out many arguments against vouchers - but it always comes back to control."
Theurer, a seven-year member, says the board, including Burningham, is remarkably - surprisingly - free of ideological motivations. "I always expect someone to come in with an agenda, but so far it hasn't happened."
But several lawmakers would like to change the structure of the board to make it more responsive to voters - or at least to their representatives. Burningham sees this as an attempt to "politicize" the board, making it part of ideological politics.
Dougall calls that naive, at best. "If anybody thinks the state board is not a political body, they don't understand the board," he says.
Burningham and other board members fear that if vouchers fail in the referendum, conservative lawmakers will lash out against public schools by cutting programs. "I just hope they aren't vindictive towards the students," he says.
Back at the board social, Burningham supplies paper and markers and challenges his guests to write down their thoughts about the state board and even him. Their comments, he says, will be read aloud.
Still the teacher, he throws in one more requirement - the statements have to be in the form of poems.
Chairman, Utah Board of Education
* Student: Bachelor's degree from University of Utah; Master's in Interpretive Speech, University of Arizona; Master of Fine Arts in professional writing, University of Southern California.
* Teacher: Taught speech, English, debate and theater at Bountiful High School for 27 years. Now teaches writing to business executives at FranklinCovey.
* Politician: Served in the Utah House for 15 years. Elected in 1998 to state Board of Education. Executive director of the Utah Statehood Centennial Commission.
* Artist: Has written screenplays, directed at Promised Valley Playhouse, Weber State University and Bountiful Community Theater.
Utah's voucher program
* Would award $500 to $3,000 vouchers for every child in the state except those currently attending private school (low-income private school students could still get vouchers). But all new kindergartners would qualify, regardless of whether their parents already were planning on private school. In 13 years, all private school students could be using vouchers.
* Would insulate districts from financial damage. For five years after a voucher student leaves, districts would get to keep some of the state money for that student.
* If the program gets a "yes" vote in a referendum ballot in November, it would be the most expansive voucher initiative in the United States.